Candidates seeking to fill two seats on the University of Michigan Board of Regents presented their views during a forum Monday on a variety of topics, including college affordability, diversity, academic freedom of the faculty and the relationship among the three U-M campuses.
Five of the 10 people seeking eight-year terms in the Nov. 6 election appeared at the forum, sponsored by the Senate Assembly, to outline their candidacies and answer questions from the faculty governance group and other audience members.
Participating in the discussion were incumbent Republicans Regent Andrea Fischer Newman and Regent Andrew Richner, Democrats Jordan Acker and Paul Brown, and Green party candidate Kevin A. Graves.
Not participating were Libertarians James Lewis Hudler and John Jascob, U.S. Taxpayers candidates Joe Sanger and Crystal Van Sickle, and Natural Law candidate Marge Katchmark Sallows.
At the forum, candidates stressed the importance of U-M ensuring an affordable education.
Newman discussed cutting costs and raising funds to offset rising tuition, citing her previous votes against tuition increases.
“We’re helping the lowest-income families get their kids in school here, but we’re not helping enough people to come here,” Newman said. “Middle-income families are getting squeezed out of an education at the University of Michigan and that’s just wrong.”
Brown said that while every member of the Board of Regents has historically spoken on the need to lower tuition, he asked, “Who are we waiting for to solve this problem? It’s every board member’s job to come up with solutions.”
Acker said during his travels across the state, he met a mother in Bay City whose son found that it was more affordable to attend Princeton University than U-M.
“We can never be losing middle-class kids in the state of Michigan to out-of-state schools,” Acker said. “That is the bread and butter of this institution.”
Graves said he believes in a free education, or at “least an inexpensive one.”
“Free education would improve the economy and lower crime,” he said.
Richner noted the state’s appropriation for U-M has not yet caught up to the level the school experienced nearly two decades ago.
“We have student support that is the envy of the world in terms of public universities,” Richner said. “No one wants to vote for tuition increases; it’s the last thing you want to do. How are you going to balance your budget? That’s our priority — to make sure we can deliver a top-quality education at an affordable price.”
Both audience members and candidates addressed academic freedom in light of a recent incident where a U-M faculty member refused to provide a previously promised letter of recommendation for a student because the student was seeking to study abroad in Israel.
Although several of the candidates stressed the importance of academic freedom for faculty more broadly, many acknowledged there are limits.
Richner said while the university recognizes intellectual diversity and freedom of thought, “there are limitations when it comes to respecting the rights of students to get an education.”
Newman said she considers academic freedom the linchpin of any great institution. However, while she thinks the professor involved in the recent incident should have academic freedom, she does not think he should have the ability to hinder a student’s education.
Brown said he thinks it’s a university’s role to allow professors “total academic freedom.” However, in regards to the recent letter of recommendation incident, he said a key fact is the professor was asked to write about the student’s ability and was in no way requested to endorse what the student wanted to do.
Acker said the university works best when the regents have hire people they trust to handle issues of academic freedom correctly.
“I thought that the way the administration and the provost handled this particular situation was well done,” Acker said.
Graves said the professor in question had the right to change his mind to provide a letter of recommendation.
All but Graves opposed organizing a committee to investigate any university investments in companies that profit off of human rights violations in Palestine.
In terms of how the Board of Regents can support UM-Dearborn and UM-Flint, Brown said faculty members’ compensation should be equal among all three campuses, and that “the tradition of not sharing resources” is wrong.
Acker agreed with Brown, adding that “we have to get away from the thinking that University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is separate from the two other campuses.”
Newman applauded UM-Flint’s leadership role during the city’s water crisis and said there needs to be a “better ability to work” between UM-Flint and the Ann Arbor campus.
Richner cautioned that sharing resources might negatively affect state appropriations for the Ann Arbor campus, since the state views the three campuses as separate entities.
“But there are opportunities to work collectively,” with opportunities to collaborate available in procurement, admissions and academic programming, he said.
Graves said he attended UM-Dearborn and “felt the separation back then.” He added if the same sentiment is applied to UM-Flint, the key is changing culture.